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Thousands Try to Attend State Park Hearing

July 8, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor’s Note: The firestorm created by a state park campground privatization plan for some of Florida’s state parks is apparent in the following story published by the Palm Harbor Patch. The account covers a meeting held Tuesday in Florida about plans to build an RV park in Honeymoon Island State Park. Click here to see photos taken at the scene and to read the story in the newspaper’s online edition.

They came with signs of their displeasure.

“Share Concern for Nature & Wildlife,” “If the Honeymoon is Over Then I want a Divorce,” and “Don’t Pave Paradise.”

One sign was made from an old sheet. Another hung on the side of a pickup truck.

No matter what the medium, it was all the same message.

“I don’t think they should disturb the wildlife,” Roselin Dano said, holding her sign. “It should be ecologically the way it is.”

Thousands of Tampa Bay area residents came to get their two minutes of mic time to tell state officials they are against the idea of opening 17.5 acres of Honeymoon Island State Park to RV camping at the Hale Senior Activity Center on Tuesday night.

Honeymoon Island is one of four parks targeted for this change. There are more than 50 parks on the state list with “potential” to add camping. However, officials only plan to look at four to avoid overwhelming staff.

Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Palm Harbor, attended Tuesday’s meeting. Nehr says he received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from concerned citizens. He says he has let officials know that he is “adamantly opposed” to the plan.

“Honeymoon Island is already a place where lots and lots of people go,” Nehr said. “There is no reason for us to have additional campgrounds.”

Nehr says he visits Honeymoon Island and can still remember his first trip there. He recalled that as he explored the island with his family, it seemed like the ground was moving; it turned out to be all of the tiny crabs scurrying across the sand.

Nehr was one of many politicians who attended the meeting. Others included Sen. Mike Fasano, Rep. Ed Hooper, Rep. Richard Corcoran, Dunedin Mayor David Eggers and the rest of Dunedin’s city commission.

Entry into the Hale Center ballroom was limited to 380 people. A line of hundreds of other potential speakers snaked outside the building and down Douglas Avenue. Fire officials only allowed people to come inside as others left. Speakers during the more than four-hour meeting quipped that it should have been moved to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the baseball field across the street.

Albert Gregory, head of park planning, called the turnout “unprecedentedly unanimous.”

“I’ve done this for three decades and haven’t seen a group this large,” Gregory said as he held up an inches-thick stack of speaker cards. “I’ve never seen a stack like this in my life.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the move is a response to a demand for more camping space. Sites are available at 53 other state parks.

“It is one of the most poplar activities in state parks,” Gregory said.

Honeymoon Island brought in about $2.2 million last year, and operated on about $612,000. The park saw a profit of $1.3 million, which goes back into the state general fund.

Trisha Kirby of Clearwater worked seven years as a ranger in federal parks. She warned of the dangers humans bring to parks, including light and noise pollution and the risk of campers wandering where they shouldn’t.

She also did not think 60 calls a month asking for more camping is many, not if there are more than 50 parks that allow camping already.

“They are trying to prostitute your park system,” Kirby said. “Help these people find solutions. They are asking for your help right now.”

Jonathan Skinner came to the meeting clutching a copy of the key to the city. It was the one given to his ancestors after the founding family gave pieces of land that helped form Honeymoon Island.

“I want to remind the state of Florida that the only reason you have Honeymoon Island is because the city of Dunedin and the people of Dunedin gave it to you to protect and preserve,” Skinner said.

The park is a piece of preserved Florida. It’s 2,810 natural acres of palmetto, brush, slash pine and mangroves. Migrant song birds, bald eagles, and other wading and shore birds also call the island home.

Nancy MacDonald of New Port Richey enjoys birding or kayaking at Honeymoon Island at least twice a week. MacDonald, 69, takes her Bushnell binoculars for a better look at the bald eagles that nest there.

“There’s no smell of fumes from motor boats,” MacDonald said. “You can kayak without fear. What the problem in Florida is … they take something nice and they ruin it.”

Libby Burke, a Clearwater Marine Aquarium volunteer, helps watch turtle nests from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. about 10 days before the eggs hatch. She has done this for the past 12 years.

“The ones that we don’t have to worry about are the few that happen to be on Honeymoon Island,” Burke said. “Let the animals have it at night.”

Officials called the proposal “family camping.” But many speakers referred to the plan as, “high-impact, RV camping.”

Scott Ranger of Palm Harbor is for camping, in tents. He would like to be able to go to the park and look up at the starry night sky. Just keep the RVs out, he said.

“I think it can be done on the island. I would forgo the popup to get the chance to look up at the stars … just like the condos can a half-mile in,” Ranger said.

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